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Zen Buddhists clean up Portland's mess

Trashed brownfield getting reborn as group's new home


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFREY BALL - Friends of Trees volunteer Charlie Thompson says the Northeast Portland site is one of the most challenging hes ever faced for tree planting. It’s a classic February day in Portland — gray skies, sheeting rain and a cold bite to the air at the base of Rocky Butte.

Kakumyo Lowe-Charde (pronounced Kak-OO-mee-oh) a monk with the Dharma Rain Zen Center, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple, is shoveling bark chips, seemingly oblivious to the cold.

Lowe-Charde is a former arborist who has been a Zen monk for 17 years. With his fleece and his boots and his large dog Nanda, he appears more arborist than monk on this day. He’s getting ready for a visit from the nonprofit Friends of Trees, to transform this godforsaken patch of land that the Zen center will soon call home.

All over the 14-acre, L-shaped parcel there are mud holes, puddles and rivulets. Fifteen Portland Community College geology students use poles to poke the ground, then huddle in rain ponchos with their professor.

The larger surrounding 26-acre space at Northeast 82nd Ave and Siskiyou Street has been unused for decades, and for sale at least 10 years. It’s a brownfield site, meaning it was contaminated from a prior use, requiring an environmental cleanup before it can be reoccupied.

It was a gravel pit from 1936 to 1972. When nearby interstate freeways 84 and 205 were built, it became Lavelle Landfill, used to stow construction debris, mainly concrete, asphalt and wood. It was capped in 1983 with a layer of clay and soil.

The Dharma Rain Zen Center, a fixture of the neighborly Hawthorne District for 25 years, has long needed more space. It bought the smaller plot in 2012 for $1.75 million and has begun moving there.

Community building

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFREY BALL - Kakumyo Lowe-Charde, a monk in the Dharma Rain Zen Buddhist community, shepherds the restoration of a contaminated brownfield on Portlands 82nd Avenue. Lowe-Charde and his fellow Buddhists are determined to transform this no man’s land into an ecologically sensitive space for more than just their own community.

The center has sold one of its Hawthorne buildings and two more are on the block. That sale paid for the land, and will get construction started on the soto (meditation hall) and landscaping. The soto will be open in spring 2015. That will be followed by 32 units of cohousing, for purchase by anyone, not just Buddhists, with construction starting in summer 2015. There also will be a public park and community gardens, run by Portland Parks & Recreation, and an east-west right-of-way connecting Southeast 82nd Avenue with the base of Rocky Butte.

Though 82nd Avenue is less prestigious than Hawthorne, the Zen center actually has more members within five miles of this location than its Hawthorne site.

“We want to look at the long term,” Lowe-Charde says. “It’s going to be inconvenient for a decade, but over a century it’s a phenomenal opportunity to restore this much habitat in a crucial part of the city.”

Inviting nature back

The natural oak savannah is being restored, and the total space will be the missing link in a wildlife corridor for deer, coyotes and birds running from the Rose City Golf Course and Glenhaven Park to Rocky Butte State Park.

Those ecological goals predated the Zen center.

“We got to ride on those coattails,” Lowe-Charde says. “Zen has an ethos of flexibility, of discerning what’s appropriate, and fitting in with that.”

He adds: “The neighbors wanted something that contributed to livability. They are ecstatic that this is not a big-box store.”

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFFREY BALL - Kakumyo Lowe-Charde, a monk in the Dharma Rain Zen community, speaks with Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish during a work day at the brownfield being converted into the Buddhist groups new home.One worry was that the landfill, which is capped with clay and soil, could not carry much weight. But Lowe-Charde points out that the Walmart once proposed on the property would have required pilings 100 feet deep.

“A 10-acre steel building needs that kind of stability, and the engineering is fantastically difficult,” he says. “Ours are all human-scale, light-weight, wood-frame buildings.”

Getting help

The PCC Environmental Science and Resources students have come to gather field data and compare it to runoff maps of the site, noting water flows and poking poles in the ground. It’s a step out of Google Earth to the muck of real life.

“We are trying to figure out the gradient, seeing which way the water’s really going, and looking for indications of slope instability,” says their professor Frank Granshaw.

In return for access, the landowners get the “green” data from the students to add to the “grey” data they already have.

“This landfill was not especially challenging,” says Mike Coenen with the engineering firm GeoDesign Inc. The company has been working on seeing the Zen center through the regulatory process, especially addressing the methane accumulation. Methane at the site comes mainly from decomposing wood waste, and is pumped out though large yellow pipes.

Development on landfills is fairly common. The Asian American Plaza at 82nd and Northeast Siskiyou Street was built on the northwest corner of the former Lavelle Landfill. The Home Depot in Oregon City also was built on a former landfill, as will the future Cully Park in Northeast Portland.

The primary concern with methane is it’s explosive, but at this site the production is slow and steady, and it’s being removed adequately, says Bob Schwarz of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“With a lot of landfills, we’re concerned with liquid waste, leachates, but there’s not a lot of harmful chemicals here,” Schwarz says.

So are Zen Buddhists greener than average?

“The inner work of Zen is becoming aware and more ethical and taking bad patterns and making them more wholesome,” Lowe-Charde says. Karma is simply “habit energy,” and his team is undoing the bad habits that left the site a wasteland for a few decades.

“Buddhism has a strong value around living use and bringing a level of respect and appreciation to everything we encounter. And that fits in well with the environmental ethic, and guides our approach to restoration of this land.”